Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City

Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City

Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City

Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City

Synopsis

The Lower East Side of Manhattan is rich in stories -- of poor immigrants who flocked there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; of beatniks, hippies, and artists who peopled it mid-century; and of the real estate developers and politicians who have always shaped what is now termed the "East Village". Today, the musical Rent plays on Broadway to a mostly white and suburban audience, MTV exploits the neighborhood's newly trendy squalor in a film promotion, and on the Internet a cyber soap opera and travel-related Web pages lure members of the middle class to enjoy a commodified and sanitized version of the neighborhood.

In this sweeping account, Christopher Mele analyzes the political and cultural forces that have influenced the development of this distinctive community. He describes late nineteenth-century notions of the Lower East Side as a place of entrenched poverty, ethnic plurality, political activism, and "low" culture that elicited feelings of revulsion and fear among the city's elite and middle classes. The resulting -- and ongoing -- struggle between government and residents over affordable and decent housing has in turn affected real estate practices and urban development policies. Selling the Lower East Side recounts the resistance tactics used by community residents, as well as the impulse on the part of some to perpetuate the image of the neighborhood as dangerous, romantic, and bohemian, clinging to the marginality that has been central to the identity of the East Village and subverting attempts to portray it as "new and improved".

Ironically, this very image of urban grittiness has been appropriated by a cultural marketplace hungry for new fodder.Mele explores the ways that developers, media executives, and others have coopted the area's characteristics -- analyzing the East Village as a "style provider" where what is being marketed is "difference". The result is a visi

Excerpt

The origins of this book date back to the 1980s when I was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan while attending graduate school. As a resident and a critical observer of neighborhood change, I was struck by the paradox of at least two different worlds that inhabited the identical streets and avenues around me. Over time, I lived in a half dozen apartments east of Avenue B, alongside mostly poor Puerto Rican families who had managed to maintain a tight-knit community called Loisaida (Spanglish for Lower East Side) in the wake of severe economic decline a decade earlier. Other neighbors in the same buildings were graphic designers, feature writers, and service industry workers who paid exorbitant rents for renovated apartments. To them, Avenue B and the adjacent avenues and streets were known as Alphabet City—a relatively recent invention that represented a “rejuvenation” of a landscape scarred by abandonment, arson, poverty, and a rampant illicit drug economy. The expensive apartments, restaurants, and boutiques that comprised Alphabet City stood in sharp contrast to the homeless encampments in empty lots, the ethnic groceries, and the worn tenements associated with Loisaida. A turf battle between working-class and middle-class residents and old and new uses of urban space played out before me. The area had begun to “turn around,” to borrow from the terminology of the real estate industry, as the ravages of abandonment in the 1970s that left numerous buildings burned out and bricked up slowly gave way to reinvestment and middle-class development. Yet a simple gentrification narrative could not fully capture the area’s transformation. While clearly catering to an upscale clientele, the aesthetic designs of new apartment buildings as well as the themes of local nightclubs and other commercial spaces seemed to gesture toward and even mimic the look and feel of the very social elements they threatened to displace.

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